What follows is a partial email correspondence in which a friend asks me for advise and I attempt to point her in a helpful direction.

 

Subject: I’m looking for your expert opinion! 😛

Hey Mike! 
I hope all is well! I’m sorry if it seems like I treat you like a librarian/sex therapist, lol. I hope you take it as a compliment! I am newly single, and am doing my own exit interview. I’m running into a reoccurring issue that I was hoping you might have some input on.
 I absolutely adore my previous partner, but since he broke things off a month ago, I have realized that I probably wasn’t ready for a serious relationship yet, anyway. In fact, when we started talking last winter, I was pretty clear with myself that I wasn’t ready then, either, and what I was looking for was a friend with benefits sort of situation. 
Everyone asking if he and I had made it “official” for months pushed all sorts of buttons for me, and I felt really insecure, and desperate for commitment by Summer. He was hesitant, but decided to give it a try after I made it very clear that it was important to me. Six months later, I can look back and say that it was an unhealthy reaction to past trauma and issues of abandonment, but in the moment, it felt very sincere and important. He still has the same doubts about our potential to be long term partners, and while we communicated about it openly and honestly throughout the relationship, it became too hard for him to ignore his doubts and feelings that he would eventually let me down, etc. it really sucks, because it was the healthiest, happiest, and most sexually fulfilling relationship of my adult life.  
When I think about love and sex outside of the situation, I feel like I fit into a poly mindset. Different partners can experience different connections in different ways without validating or invalidating any one else’s interactions and relationships with the people involved. I know that I can be in love with two people at once. However, I think from a series of unhealthy relationships and emotional abuse, I have a hard time not latching on to a partner too tightly to actually enjoy the flow of individuals in my life. It’s like I expect them to wake up and realize they are done with me any second, so I need to get as much quality time out of them as I can before they vanish. I have made tons of progress in the self-love and self-worth sectors, but this reaction has been a lasting remnant of old times.
Anyway, I guess what I’m getting at is that to be in a healthy relationship, poly or not, you need to be healthy yourself. I know where my weaknesses are, I’m just not sure what sort of resources to use to work on it. I know you are super educated on interpersonal dynamics at this point, and I was hoping you might know of a book, blog, or other resource you’d recommend to work through this. I am ok with being single for a while, probably for the rest of the year, while I work on myself. I’m not sure that I can or want to be celibate for that time, though. (I’m bumming about all of my old friends with benefits from pre-married life moving away, it really throws a kink in things! :P) I don’t know how to start a casual relationship with a stranger without ending up feeling “not good enough” when they aren’t trying to take it to the next level, even though I know I’m not looking for that. I don’t have friends that I can explore something casual with on my radar, either. I want to find a way to be fulfilled physically while I heal emotionally without jumping in too deep out of fear of rejection. 
Love and thanks,
M

 

My Response:

 

Hi M – 
It sounds to me like you’ve done a good bit of introspection here and have a pretty good handle on your situation and feelings. My go-to book for venturing into romantic and sexual liberation is “The Ethical Slut.” It’s pretty entertaining and a good read even for people who want mono relationships. Check it out.
I think the biggest thing we all need to do is to untangle what we actually want in our relationships (sexual, romantic, or platonic) from images we’ve been exposed to and expectations received from the Dominant Culture. Try to get those expectations down to zero – then you can be free to build them back up as best suits you and your partner(s). One of my longest running relationships is currently in a firmly platonic and somewhat distant place but is no less valuable to me because of that. Because we allow the relationship to change over time and we accept those changes, it allows us to be flexible and maintain intimacy in varying conditions. 
As for your particular situation, this quote jumped out at me:

“I don’t know how to start a casual relationship with a stranger without ending up feeling “not good enough” when they aren’t trying to take it to the next level, even though I know I’m not looking for that.”

It’s striking because it sounds like you’re experiencing emotional suffering due to not getting something that you don’t think you want in the first place. This is a sign that you have either nagging self-doubt that comes up in this context or that you have unconscious/unwanted expectations of your relationships. What is “the next level?” What are the levels? How many are there? Does each level necessarily imply a bundle of things that all come together? 
I’d advise you to parse out as much as possible all the expectations that tend to come bundled together in Dominant Culture relationships (physical attraction, sex, emotional intimacy, honesty, exclusivity in some or all of these things, etc.). The Dominant Culture is very sneaky in the way it presents us with bundles of ideas and beliefs. We learn these idea packages so thoroughly that they become background noise to our thinking and create habits that can be difficult to dislodge.
I believe these habits can be unlearned but that unlearning takes time and practice. It will take examining your feelings as you’re having them and asking yourself questions like “Why do I feel this way?” and “Is the apparent trigger for this feeling really the cause, or is there something else that it’s masking?” After a time, you may begin to feel liberated from some of these negative feelings. Hold on to that liberation! Remember that it exists even when you cannot find it! All things shall pass.
We’re not taught these skills by the Dominant Culture – “emotional literacy” I like to call them. We can learn them from one another but at this point we’re outside the Dominant Culture’s grids, essentially journeying without a map. Luckily, this just makes life more of an adventure if you do it with care.
Hope this helps!
<3 Mike